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From a former prison to a converted bullring: meet the hotels with fascinating past lives

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Deborah Cicurel
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Reduce, reuse, recycle. It doesn’t just have to apply to personal possessions; it can apply to buildings, too.

If you’re the type of person who seeks ‘character’ in their accommodation, then you’ve come to the right place. Because we’ve hand-picked hotels from across the world with the most fascinating past lives.

From a former perfume factory in Italy to a Danish prison and a bullring based in Mexico, if you’re looking for a quirky getaway with a thrilling backstory, we’ve got you covered.

Scroll through the gallery below for a good dose of historical wanderlust...

  • Hotel Malmaison, Oxford

    Once a draconian Victorian prison in a medieval castle, Hotel Malmaison has been spectacularly transformed into an idiosyncratic, 95-bedroom delight in the centre of Oxford. 

    Almost a decade after HM Prison Oxford closed in 1996, Hotel Malmaison opened in 2005. Eleven years later, there are still plenty of innocent guests queuing up to spend a night in the cells and try their hand at living behind bars (of sorts).

    Prices start from £135 / night.

  • Hotel Malmaison, Oxford

    The luxe boutique hotel doesn’t shy away from its history. Architectural details like the imposing atrium and former cells have been transformed, and the original exposed brickwork maintained, so that even though you don’t have an angry cellmate or bullish guards to deal with, you can still get a sense of what the institution might have been like in the not-so-distant past.

    Maximising the architecture of the building isn’t the hotel’s only nod to its past – there are signs everywhere, including toiletries marked ‘Steal Me’. 

    Orange jumpsuits not mandatory.

    Prices start from £135 / night

  • Hôtel du Petit Moulin, Paris

    Designed by Christian Lacroix, the luxurious 17-bedroom Hôtel du Petit Moulin opened in 2005, in what was once Paris’ first bakery.

    Set in the trendy Le Marais neighbourhood, the quaint patisserie boasted patrons including Victor Hugo among its renowned clientele.

    Prices start from £160 / night

  • Hôtel du Petit Moulin, Paris

    The 17th century building and the 1900 shopfront are still so convincing that passers-by have been known to stop and enquire about fresh baguettes. 

    With the decor changing in each room, guests can feast their eyes on bold prints, bright furniture and thematic clashes, while pretending they’re impatiently standing in the queue behind one of France’s greatest writers.

    Prices start from £160 / night

  • Fontevraud L’Hotel, Loire Valley

    This former monastery, Fontevraud Abbey, was founded in the 12th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    It was transformed into a modern luxury hotel only last year, opening its doors to guests as the hip Fontevraud L’Hotel.

    Prices start from £118 / night

  • Fontevraud L’Hotel, Loire Valley

    The former monastery – one of the biggest monastic sites from the Middle Ages – still retains its beautiful arches, soaring architecture and impressive windows.

    However, the luxury 54-bedroom hotel within the monastery’s walls has been given a modern makeover, with iPads in every room, contemporary design and even the iBar, which comprises touchscreen table tops in what was once the chapel.

    The contrast between the two very distinct roles of the building is what makes the hotel so unique: there’s no rule about vows of silence here, but you just might be awed into quiet by the jaw-dropping surroundings.

    Prices start from £118 / night

  • The Liberty Hotel, Boston

    The Charles Street Jail was once home to Boston’s most notorious criminals.

    Now hosting vacationers rather than villains, the Boston landmark has been transformed into the elegant Liberty Hotel, opening its far more welcoming doors to guests in 2007. 

    Prices start from £170 / night

  • The Liberty Hotel, Boston

    Unlike its modern transformation, the original building wasn’t too cosy, with 1973 seeing a revolt by prisoners against poor living conditions. 

    Today’s hotel offers 298 rooms and eye-catching social spaces with the history of the building still present in the outline of the cells in the restaurant and bar.

    The former exercise yard has been transformed into a landscaped courtyard that’s peaceful and serene. 

    Prices start from £170 / night

  • Courthouse Hotel, Shoreditch

    Originally serving as a magistrates’ court and police station from 1903 until 1996, the chic Courthouse Hotel in Shoreditch, is a far cry from its stern, unwelcoming past.

    Once home to the Kray twins while they were awaiting trial, the courthouse, opened in 2015, is now unrecognisable, boasting a swanky 86 guest rooms and 42 suites.

    Prices start from £189 / night.

  • Courthouse Hotel, Shoreditch

    With the original cells where the infamous Ronnie and Reggie were held now transformed into drinking dens, it’s fair to say that the former courthouse has sharpened up greatly.

    In an apt homage to its history, the restaurant is named The Jury, plus there are plenty of restored period features to admire (if you can tear your eyes away from the cocktail list).

    Prices start from £189 / night.

  • Hotel Magna Pars Suites, Milan

    Once a factory in Milan dedicated to the creation of exotic perfumes, this building was completely transformed into a chic family-owned hotel with modern decor three and a half years ago. 

    Prices start from £220 / night

  • Hotel Magna Pars Suites, Milan

    Though it may not be a perfume factory any longer, Hotel Magna Pars Suites Milano hasn’t forgotten its roots.

    On a small, peaceful street in Milan’s fashion and design district, the owners designed each of its 39 suites with the perfume essences of flowers and woods in mind, creating the colours and scents of the former perfumery accordingly. 

    There’s also a perfume laboratory on-site where guests can gawp at artefacts from the former perfume factory, check out a library filled with antique books on the art of perfumery and buy customised fragrances.

    If you’re passionate about scents, this one might just be for you.

    Prices start from £220 / night

  • Quinta Real Zacatecas, Mexico

    Once known as the 19th century San Pedro bullfighting ring, Quinta Real Zacatecas saw its last bullfight in 1975, completely rebranding and opening as a glamorous hotel in 1989.

    Based in the charming colonial city of Zacatecas, just moments from the fascinating downtown area (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, no less), this hot spot is definitely worth a visit.

    Prices start from £94 / night

  • Quinta Real Zacatecas, Mexico

    With 49 elegant hotel rooms and the former bullring now used as a show-stopping outdoor dining area, there are plenty of hints about the property’s history.

    From the authentic stonework to the dramatic stone arches, the original design has been retained and modified into picturesque accommodation perfect for the modern traveller, without a matador or red flag in sight.

    Prices start from £94 / night

  • B2 Boutique Hotel and Spa, Zurich

    If you like your beer, there can’t be many better ways to spend your holiday than staying in a former brewery. The Hürlimann Brewery stopped functioning as a brewery in 1996, opening its doors as a swish design hotel and spa in 2012.

    Prices start from £262 / night

  • B2 Boutique Hotel and Spa, Zurich

    The designers of the hotel were keen to retain a close connection to the building’s original purpose and history.

    The thermal bath and spa is built into the imposing old barrel vaults of the former brewery, while the original brickwork and huge basins of larch wood help to evoke the past. 

    Bookworms will love snuggling up with a good book in the hotel’s impressive library – pint in tow, of course.

    Prices start from £262 / night

  • SleepIn Fængslet, Denmark

    It’s been 10 years since the last inmate walked out of Fængslet Prison.

    But rather than splashing out on fancy interiors and Michelin-starred chefs, the brains behind SleepIn Fængslet have decided to keep it bare and scarce, recently opening a truly minimalist hotel within the walls of the 150-year-old former penitentiary in the ever-trendy Denmark.

    Prices start from £57 / night. 

  • SleepIn Fængslet, Denmark

    If you’ve had enough of fluffy towels, plush fabrics and chocolates on your pillow, and want to experience a city break in a hotel that’s not a stark contrast to what it originally was, you can’t do better than this.

    The hotel also houses a Prison Museum, shared office space, and a venue for private events, festivals and concerts (in the former prison yard, naturally). So if you do get a bit stir crazy sitting in your cell, there’s plenty outside your own four walls to get involved in.

    Hopefully you’ll have a better time than the previous inmates…

    Prices start from £57 / night. 

  • The Singular Patagonia, Puerto Bories Hotel, Chile

    In a previous life, this imposing structure used to function as an early 20th century cold storage plant for slaughtered sheep.

    Designated as a National Monument in 1996, the converted building opened as a luxury hotel, The Singular Patagonia, in 2011.

    Prices start from £266 / night

  • The Singular Patagonia, Puerto Bories Hotel, Chile

    With 54 rooms, chic social spaces and incredible views of the Fjord of Last Hope Sound and the Andes Mountains through enormous floor-to-ceiling windows, this is a one-of-a-kind hotel that’s about experiences as much as it is about interiors.

    While the design has been dramatically transformed, key structures remain, providing a striking effect. There’s also a museum in the lobby to display a fascinating collection of machines, engines, equipment and other artefacts from the old plant.

    Prices start from £266 / night

  • The Wellesley, London

    Once a place for grumpy commuters and crammed carriages, the then-Hyde Park Corner Station has been given a swanky upgrade. 

    After a stint as a jazz venue serving pizza, the former station is now The Wellesley, a luxury boutique art deco hotel in Knightsbridge with 36 bedrooms and suites.

    Prices start from £435 / night

  • The Wellesley, London

    Despite its strikingly different look, remnants of its history lie in the architecture, with original archways, eye-catching exposure bricks and original oxblood tiles on the front of the building.

    We wouldn’t mind our commute so much if our local train station looked like this…

    Prices start from £435 / night

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Deborah Cicurel

Deborah Cicurel is a freelance journalist who writes about everything from lifestyle and travel to fashion and entertainment. She loves spicy maki rolls, cosy socks and visiting far-flung destinations, and is unable to walk past a dog on the street without stopping to befriend it.

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